The Dollhouse appears to be about 80% high-tech whorehouse, to be honest… if you don’t think that can be applied as a “feminist” theme, I’d wager you don’t recognize the difference between endorsing a concept and exploring it. ;) I will admit that it is not as well made as some of his other work has been and it took longer to really grab me; I was hooked from the first episode, “yes, this series has potential, and I can care about some of these characters”. I think the pilot is a bad introduction to the series, actually, especially with the truly horrid cold opening that honestly should have been cut; the acting is terrible in that scene and the dialogue is mostly pretty stilted and gimmicky and the whole thing was obviously stuck in there because the net wanted some filler and a more up-front revelation of the plot/premise.
Some immediate Whedonverse parallels are apparent. The Dollhouse brings to mind Wolfram and Hart, the daemonic interdimensional law firm from Angel. Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), the brilliant but amoral young scientist who handles the imprinting process, is Andrew from Buffy or possibly Knox from Angel. Echo has a male father figure handler Boyd Langton (Harry J. Lennix), just like Giles on Buffy. Though at the moment it is not coming across as a Joss Whedon show. He has spoken about a conscious decision to omit much of his signature quirky dialogue and humour from Dollhouse. He does this for all the right reasons - the integrity and balance of the show though I miss it hugely.
"A beautiful girl with a mysterious past who will be anything you need her to be? Be still our hearts."
But hey, we have a walking reminder of the golden age with Eliza Dushku (previously Faith, the prodigal slayer from Buffy) starring. She plays Echo and her various personalities well and I don't recall her ever looking so perfect (and if you've followed Dushku's career you'll know that this is a bold statement). We don't know much about Echo other than she's always wanted to "do everything" and there are some dark murmurings about actions from her past having consequences.
"In a crazy random happenstance, her abuser turns out to be one of the kidnappers. This really doesn't help the negotiations go smoothly."
To kick off the series, Echo is imprinted with Eleanor Penn, a world-class hostage negotiator playing hardball with a gang of criminals who have kidnapped the child of a Mexican businessman. In addition to her incredible negotiation skills, Eleanor has asthma nearsightedness and memories of being sexually abused by a kidnapper as a child. Because the personas imprinted onto the Dolls are not written from scratch - they are an amalgam of several different real-life personalities and that inevitably leads to some flaws.
"The Doll house just prevented a baby rapist putting his -beep- in a 10-year-old girl which most would see as a positive outcome."
So the Dollhouse project is twisted, immoral, illegal and no one outside the organisation has heard a thing about it. No one except Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett taking a break from toaster frakking on Battlestar Galactica) an FBI agent who picked up on a whisper about the place, and believes it to be a human trafficking operation. If only he knew the truth.
But what is the truth? Is the Dollhouse really that evil? Ice cold house honcho Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) believes not, seeing it as a win-win-win situation for the client, the active and the company. It was a good opener even if there wasn't quite enough to make it really feel like a Joss Whedon production. He has mapped out a five-year plan for the shows and its characters to ensure they develop and don't stay stuck in some TV Groundhog Day doing the same dumb crap we saw them do in the first episode. This is good to know. Sometimes you just know you're in good hands. I don't think Dollhouse will disappoint.
"Doesn't the concept of informed consent become meaningless? If she remembers nothing after her mission how can she hold her handlers accountable? Slutbag, negotiator assassin, - you don't know where you've been, baby."
However, I like how the show as a whole feels like it’s moving quickly (given episodes are generally fast-paced, there’s usually a little hint as to the greater plot or Echo’s original identity or both, etc.) even though it’s really just being a horrible, flirtatious tease. I get the feeling that this show will get more interesting as it goes along.
Can you really like Echo? Of course you can't. You can like some of the people she's been imprinted as and some of the situations she finds herself in. You can sympathize with her plight. You can even empathize with the idea of being a person whose identity is subject to the whim of outside forces (we're all being imprinted, be it by religion, by the media, by politics, etc). In particular, you can like Dushku, also a producer on the series, who's having a tremendous amount of fun looking great and playing three or four different characters per episode. But you can't like the character. There's nothing there for you to like.
There also isn't necessarily a clear target for distaste. As the administrators at the Dollhouse, Williams and Diamond's characters are either really bad guys practicing a form of techno-white slavery, or else they're savvy business people providing a service for a cost. Topher is a bit of an immoral cretin, but he's a geek using people as toys, rather than being truly malicious.
"Dollhouse" is awash in gray area.
The very first line of the entire series is "Nothing is what it appears to be" and the show is about cheating expectations, for characters, for plots, for episodic television at every step.
Because the "Dollhouse" world is so hard to absorb, the series has begun with a number of episodes that are relatively stand-alone. Paradoxically, the repetition of basic exposition makes it easier to understand how things work in this version of the not-so-distant future (or alternate present), but harder to get hooked into the universe of the show. Amidst these various pilot permutations are hints at where the show is building and seeds of mysteries, several of which I'm eager to learn more about and several of which I'd just see wiped.
When the serialized elements and mythology kick in, I hope the world will become less analytical and more immersive. I wonder if those elements will be introduced fast enough to keep viewers involved. Yes, Whedon and various cast members have talked about how things get really good in the middle of the season. I'll still be there, but as you can see, I've got some frustration on this one.
- The best thing about it: The return of Joss and Mutant Enemy.
- The worst thing about it: The lack of certain Whedon touches.
- The verdict on Dollhouse series: Highly Promising.
Marks out of 10: 8.5
Damn good TV, possible one of Whedon's best shows to date...